US condemns Russian Defense Minister for awarding pilots who intercepted US drone

Friday, March 24, 2023

Kirby speaking on Wednesday.
Image: The White House.

In a press briefing on Wednesday, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby condemned Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for awarding two Russian pilots the Order of Courage for intercepting a US MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea.

Kirby said: "I don't know of another military in the world — another air force in the world — that would award a pilot for smashing into a drone. If that's bravery, then I guess they've got a different definition of it. It's ludicrous, it's insulting.

"Now, we don’t know whether that pilot was trying to intentionally ram that drone or not, but he did — video evidence was pretty conclusive."

The US Air Force's footage of the incident.
Image: United States Air Force.

On March 14, United States Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa (USAFE-AFAFRICA) reported the incident, which it said occurred at 07:03 CET (06:03 UTC) the same day over international waters, identifying the Russian fighter jets as Sukhoi Su-27s.

United States Air Force General James B. Hecker, commander of USAFE-AFAFRICA, said: "Several times before the collision, the Su-27s dumped fuel on, and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner."

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price, speaking to MSNBC on March 15, said: "I think the best assessment right now is that it probably was unintentional. It probably was the result of profound incompetence on the part of one of these Russian pilots."

The US Air Force's map of the incident.
Image: Symantha King.

The next day, the United States European Command (EUCOM) declassified a 42-second video clip "edited for length" from the incident. The clip purportedly depicts two passes over the drone. After the second pass, which EUCOM alleges ended in a collision, the video cuts out for about 9 seconds, displaying color bars, then returns to show the drone's propeller has been physically damaged.

The MQ-9's pilots intentionally crashed the drone into the sea; EUCOM cited the damaged propeller as the reason.

Russia has denied it deliberately brought down the drone or that a Russian jet made contact with it, claiming the MQ-9's "sharp maneuvering" was responsible for its crash.

Samir Puri, a visiting lecturer in war studies at King's College London, told Al Jazeera the video does not prove intention, but he thought the Russians would fly aggressively to demonstrate "mastery over these skies and that the Americans, they can't fly these intelligence flights undisturbed."

Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of Russia, said: "The Americans keep saying they're not taking part in military operations. This is the latest confirmation that they are directly participating in these activities – in the war."

The Guardian speculated the incident could escalate Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Media reports disagreed on whether Shoigu presented the award to the pilots on March 17 or on Wednesday, with CNN and Insider stating the former and Sputnik and The Hill writing the date was Wednesday.

Shoigu's Ministry of Defense said the pilots "prevented the violation by the American MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle of the borders of the area of ​​the temporary regime for the use of airspace, established for the purpose of conducting a special military operation."